Rethinking Velvet Ropes

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I can't help but think how much the act of experiencing art has changed over the last 50 years. Installation, site specific and new media works, to name just a few, have dramatically changed what galleries and museums offer, and what the public expects.  As a gallery owner, and now museum curator, I'm constantly on the lookout for exceptional exhibition design - approaches that will challenge, engage and inform audiences.

One day while doing some research, I stumbled upon an article in The Wall Street Journal, "Surrounding Yourself with Art". It really struck a chord. The image posted here is of Tomás Saraceno's "In Orbit", at K21 Standehaus in Dusseldorf, Germany, and upon first glance, it looked like something out of a video game, complete with reflective floating orbs and humans seemingly superimposed on a screen. Actually, the piece is a combination of steel-wire netting suspended 80 feet above the floor with large, randomly placed inflated spheres - a veritable high-tech jungle gym. The article goes on to talk about a variety of works that not only encourages audience interaction, but requires it.

Tomás Saraceno’s “In Orbit"
  • Tomás Saraceno’s “In Orbit"

Not to take anything away from Mr. Saraceno's work, but it appears the piece would be physically exhausting and extremely scary: free-climbing 80 feet above the ground in something of a precarious state. According to the article, his works are popular; drawing huge crowds. The article went on to cover several other interactive works at notable museums and galleries, with one review describing a piece as comparable to, "the experience of death, (but in a good way)." That would be a tough act to follow.

I do a fair amount of research in my job; looking at exhibitions, searching the Web and looking through art history books (yes, books) to find whatever I need to do the task at hand. I look at old museum photographs where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with art - the Barnes Collection comes to mind and early images of Herron Gallery (the original IMA), where the prevailing style was a wall stacked nearly floor to ceiling with art. It seems like a foreign concept now; a visual overload that would make it almost impossible to appreciate anything you're looking at. For the most part, this type of presentation is a rare find today. Most museum displays present the work with plenty of spacing, giving the audience ample room to contemplate the work. When you consider works like "In Orbit," it reflects another big shift in the manner artists engage the viewer. In the Journal article, one artist remarked when talking about his interactive piece, "It's so hard to get to people. The experience of art has to become more and more emotional." It appears, one way of making that happen, is by making the audience a part of the piece.

Curators are constantly looking for ways to connect with the audience; juggling how to best present the artifacts with the resources available. Protecting the artwork is as much a part of our job as displaying it. People have a tendency to want to touch things. Velvet ropes, display cases and museum guards help us minimize this, but it doesn't always work. On the other hand, works like "In Orbit" have turned the tables. These hands-on works have become an integral and popular part of the contemporary landscape,and there's no going back. As artists push the boundaries and continue to evolve, curators and exhibition designers will have to respond. So when was the last time you were knocked off your feet by an exhibit, or knocked In Orbit? 

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